Last week, the eyes of the sports world lasered in on Baltimore, interrupting the NBA and NHL playoffs and even the NFL draft. News was finally breaking about the future of Lamar Jackson, the Ravens’ quicksilver MVP quarterback. After a two-year telenovela of a negotiation, Jackson and the team struck a deal—and the numbers sound like a Dr. Evil ransom demand: $260 million dollars over five years, with $185 million guaranteed. Jackson will be the highest-paid player in the NFL next season.
One may question paying anyone that much money to “play a game.” But pro sports, especially football, is not just a game. The NFL, to paraphrase The Godfather II, is bigger than US Steel. Imagine Scrooge McDuck diving into gold coins or Mr. Burns and Smithers having a money fight, and one could envision how Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones spends his weekends. As an old expression in the league goes: “Being an NFL franchise owner is like being a bartender on spring break. You don’t have to be good at it to make tons of money.”
The NFL is not only the most popular sports league in the country; it wins the Nielsen ratings with regularity, and this is television that people will actually sit through commercials to watch. Since the resulting billions of dollars are divided equally among the franchises, teams have dramatically increased in value. This is why former Browns and Ravens franchise owner Art Modell called his ownership brethren “28 capitalists who act like socialists.” Of course, it’s socialism for them, and brain injuries, non-guaranteed contracts, and a 100 percent injury rate for the players. Socialism for the bosses, cutthroat individualism for the rest.
The best example of billionaires failing upward in the NFL is, of course, Daniel Snyder, who, after 24 years of mismanagement, is being compelled to sell the Washington Commanders and will do so for more than $6 billion. He bought the team in 1999 with a loan-laden $800 million investment. Not a bad return for the most repugnant franchise owner in all of sports. (If I were to catalog all of Snyder’s myriad sins, this article would read like a James Michener book.) For Snyder, it ends with a platinum parachute, because to this remorseless, enormously wealthy league, it’s a rounding error.
The Ravens have had the cash all along. The only question has been much they’d have to cede and how much crow they’d have to eat. This has not been about money. It’s been about power. It’s about whether, to paraphrase Jim Brown, the gladiators will ever be able to own a piece of the colosseum.
The Ravens, clearly in an effort to entice Jackson to stay put, changed their team this offseason. They hired a new pass-first offensive coordinator and signed a more dangerous group of receivers. By refusing to give in, Jackson has molded this team to complement the kind of player he wants to be and the kind of offense he wants to run. This is about an athlete who, in an act of self-determination, grabbed control of his fate. And in the autocratic NFL, that just doesn’t happen very often.
This rebel spirit was also seen in his insistence, despite much mockery, to use his mother as his agent, a move that had NFL media reaching for the smelling salts and agents for the Alka-Seltzer. Now, even without a Jerry Maguire leading the charge, Lamar will keep more of his money, as he said, “in the family.” The one shortcoming was a failure to have all of this money guaranteed. That day will come, but not today.
Jackson won this battle: a David against an army of Goliaths; a David against NFL owners openly colluding to not even offer the former MVP a contract, lest they hurt the Ravens’ leverage. Against all of this he stood firm. He is now the face of the team—and in many respects the face of the city. To be a quarterback is to be a leader, and there is no question who the leader is in the Baltimore Ravens locker room. During the most difficult moments of this negotiation, the players were universal in their support. Make no mistake: This kind of victory for a Black quarterback—a group historically denied, derided, and denigrated—is noticed beyond Maryland.
In Baltimore, Lamar is more than “just an athlete.” And now that legend is burnished further. He returns to Charm City with a contract in his pocket, as someone who looked at the NFL—with all their money and power—and made the billionaires blink.